If you need another reason to fume at this year’s slate of Oscar nominees, look no further than Pablo Larraín’s The Club. Think of it as a Chilean counterpoint to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, sans the gloss and with a greater emphasis on the guilty and afflicted than on the supposed saviors: Spotlight is about good guys taking down bad guys, while The Club inhabits the same grey moral space as John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. That undersung film wades into the fray of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal with melancholy eyes and an amoral heart, coming out the other side all the more meaningful and heartbreaking for its willingness to speak to the unspeakable.
The same is true of what Larraín has accomplished in The Club, though after watching the film you may feel inspired to seek out the nearest church pew to pray. Larraín isn’t interested in concocting easy answers to the questions his film poses: Should we forgive transgressors for their transgressions? Do we dare empathize with them? Are the spiritually corrupt beyond redemption? And what, exactly, defines spiritual corruption? The film denies simple catharsis to its viewers, and therefore must be engaged with patience and an open mind.
The Club’s principal cast is comprised of four disgraced priests—Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Padre Ortega (Alejandro Goic), Padre Ramírez (Alejandro Goic), and Padre Silva (Jaime Vadell)—who have committed crimes of varying heinousness. We meet them in their dwelling in La Boca, a tiny seaside town in Chile where they have been relocated by the Church as both a punitive and protective measure; they live in social isolation, and under strict rules, to ward off public reprisal against them, as well as to shield the Church’s already tarnished reputation from further embarrassment.
It’s kind of like The Real World: Defrocked, at least until the quartet becomes a quintet and everything changes in the blink of an eye. This isn’t an exaggeration, either: Five minutes after a new arrival shows up at the group home, blood is shed on the priests’ doorstep and their cover is blown by Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a victim of repeated clerical rape in his boyhood who by chance has wound up in La Boca in his adulthood. Talk about bad luck. The violent incident impels the Church to send an agent, Padre García (Marcelo Alonso), to La Boca to determine whether the home should stay open or be shut down.
The Club begins in earnest with the appearance of García, who sits down with Vidal, Ortega, Ramírez, Silva, and their housekeeper, erstwhile nun Mónica (Antonia Zegers), in turn to interview them about their personal histories and about the death of their would-be housemate. (Unsurprisingly, they all stick to the same story to duck culpability in the tragedy.) It is here that the film commences its exploration of the priests’ differing misconducts, and that Larraín urges us to confront their wrongdoing in context with the pursuit of salvation. As García gets to know God’s fallen servants, he is presented with their decidedly thin rationales for their offenses, and we are forced to puzzle out the extent of their sins. The trick is that not all of their sins are what we expect them to be.
This is not an easily digested movie, it’s an intensely uncomfortable one—though it’s not without its distinct cinematic pleasures. It is impeccably made, for one thing: Larraín and his cinematographer, Sergio Armstrong, use the camera lens to put us right in the La Boca room with the film’s cast, and also to make the film’s remote, small-scale location feel as equally claustrophobic as it is vast. Also worth savoring, in addition to Larraín’s sense of craft, are the performances from his small but impressive ensemble of actors. Each player mines great depth of character from roles that are relatively bare on the page.
It is in the murkiness of the characters and their past actions that The Club finds its identity as an outraged work of art. There are no elegant conclusions to be drawn from Larraín’s film, only challenges to moral authority and to our own notions of guilt. Nothing in The Club is one-sided, and Larraín allows no one to be shaped only by flaws and infractions. For many, as with Calvary, the ease with which Larraín embraces ambiguity over judgment may make The Club too grim to process. (Plus, bad stuff happens to animals. You’ve been trigger warned.) But as a muted alternative to Hollywood’s attempt at examining the same atrocity, the film is refreshing for its grand uncertainties.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos
Starring: Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, Jaime Vadell, Marcelo Alonso
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.